County board mulls future of health care center
BY MIKE WARREN
STEVENS POINT — There were seemingly more questions than answers Oct. 10, at the end of a nearly two-hour discussion by the Portage County Board concerning the health care center.
Consultants and county officials gave supervisors various updates regarding a proposed health care center building project and related financing projections.
Portage County Procurement Director Chris Schultz gave the board an overview of what has been happening since voters passed an April 2022 advisory-only referendum which essentially gave supervisors permission to raise up to $4.5 million for 20 years through additional property taxes to cover the cost of a new health care facility and its related operational expenses.
“Last May we started in on a process of designing and entering into the process of building a new health care center,” Schultz told the board. “We reached the stage of what’s called the schematic design stage. That’s the first stage in any process. As we were finishing up that process, some things I think felt by the Space and Properties Committee changed in the process and changed in the financial outlook of the health care center and the referendum dollars, so they did pause the project.
“When we stopped the process nine months ago, we had a number,” Schultz added. “Just recently the Health Care Center Committee asked that we get an update to that number based on previous designs we had for the building.”
The update Schultz gave the full county board was $24.3 million for a 53-thousand square-foot facility, or $1.8 million more than estimates nine months ago. Schultz said major cost increases are now seen in several areas, like a 27 percent increase in electrical, a 19 percent jump for plumbing and 10 percent spikes for excavation/earthwork and drywall. Other costs associated with planning for the project, furnishing the facility, professional fees and more bring the new estimated total to $27.2 million. That’s a roughly 7.5 percent increase in the bottom line, according to Schultz.
“These are not today’s dollars,” said Nate Pearson of project management firm TEGRA. “They have a little inflationary factor on them for when we buy, with an anticipated buy schedule of next summer.”
Those numbers are based on a 32-bed skilled nursing facility and eight-unit CBRF (community-based residential facility).
The bigger concern is a structural deficit when it comes to actually operating the facility.
“If you move forward with the building and the operational deficit, you can see that if you maintain a consistent tax levy with where you are today, that the organization would run out of money,” said Michael Peer from the project consultant firm of Clifton Larson Allen. “The operational needs, as well as the cost to build and repay the principal and interest on those bonds, would not cash flow based on the current operations and the current tax levy. In 2028 to 2029 would be essentially where the organization would run out of money,” Peer added.
Supervisor Vinnie Miresse, also chairman of the Health Care Center Committee, advocated for the new facility.
“We know that skilled nursing in our community is not a revenue-generating business,” he said. “Our staff is the best around. They are the shining beacon of the state right now, in terms of the services they provide. If we can find a way to make this project happen creatively we’re going to see generational success, in terms of the care for our residents in Portage County,” Miresse added.
“We have initiated the process, and we’ve worked with (Finance) Director (Jennifer) Jossie and with Maria (McDonald, Health Care Center Director) on getting dates and timelines,” Miresse continued. “Our next item here is to get the appropriate language for the referendum and the appropriate dollar amount together, so that we can submit that question to DOR (Department of Revenue) for their review. Once that review comes back, then we’ll go to all the other committees for their blessing and then eventually to this body here,” said Miresse. “That is a path. That is the referendum path. There are other ideas floating around right now. The voters have voted on this twice and supported it. I’m getting a lot of emails saying, ‘Hey, we’re expecting Portage County to do this. Fund the building. Use the referendum for operational costs, which is completely within the parameters of that $4.5 million dollars.’ It’s just a matter now of making sure that this body has all of the data, all of the facts in front of them, so they can make an informed decision,” said Miresse.
There have been some rumblings about possibly selling the facility, but there was very little mention of that during the county board’s discussion. Supervisor Jeanne Dodge did ask for information on that, if it is in fact being looked at.
“The Health Care Committee had a speaker, a broker about selling the facility,” said Dodge. “Quite frankly, I think that we ought to have that information at hand as well. I know nothing about a willing buyer. It is an option that maybe the public would want to consider when they’re voting on this referendum if it goes to referendum. So I think we need to be aware of all the options, which includes home health. I hate to say this, but when I read the obituaries, a lot of people are dying peacefully at home and it sounds like it’s the way families like it.”
The Health Care Center Committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 26 at 5 p.m.